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Beanie Baby Economics 101

Homework Can Be A Home Wreck

Not Amused by Amusement Parks

The Baked Bean Rain and other Ghost Stories

The Tell Tale Coffee Mug

We Can Build a Snowman: Or Not


Easy Mark

by Mark Andel

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Easy Mark Column Archive
by Mark Andel


Beanie Baby Economics 101


AN OLD ANDERSON and Kumpf College Economics textbook says this: “Teach a parrot to say ‘supply and demand’ and you have an economist.”

I always liked the self-effacing simplicity of that – and its truth.

With the inflated prices of Beanie Babies and Sing ‘N Snore Ernie dolls, I can’t help but wonder how this simple economic law plays out in a free enterprise, greed-motivated holiday economy – how, for example, artificial demand can be created with ingenious marketing tactics to make certain products seem scarce, and how the market will respond to it.

Many newspapers list classified ads that say, in all seriousness,  “Retired Beanies, $200 OBO” and “Boxed Sing ‘N Snore Ernie, $1500,”  and “Princess Di Bear Beanie, $400.”  These are stuffed animals, folks, that are in all likelihood sewn together for pennies. The only intrinsic value they have is what economists would call, “What the market will bear.” When it comes to Princess Di bears, the answer is plenty.

Or maybe not. When you begin to see advertisement after advertisement claiming that they have Sing ‘N Snore Ernies – and the prices range from $40 to $1500,  you have a monstrous market fluctuation – which sends demand down and decreases the value of these objects to something in the neighborhood of what they’re worth. 

I like to think that certain people stocked up on these toys – black-hearted souls with the sensibility of ticket scalpers, snapping up seats to a show that they plan to charge ridiculous prices for later. Well, guess what? Nobody cares about your Ernie dolls. Or your Beanies. You can buy all you want at Toys ‘R Us at face value.

How do the folks at Ty, Inc. (makers of Beanie Babies)  make sure that they control the prices of their plastic bead-filled plush products? By publishing books with pictures of Beanie Babies that have “retired” and showing a recommended list price. It’s akin to a man selling a used car by publishing a sheet under the guise of another person who “recommends” that $19,000 is a fair price for a 76 Vega. And by the way, since when did stuffed animals “retire?”

The person who came up with that particular marketing tactic should be given the “Emperor’s New Clothes” Award for 1997. Pure genius – but the jig may be up soon. Soon it will dawn on people that paying more than $5 for a bit of fabric wrapped around plastic pellets is insane – and the market will no longer bear it – if it is now anyway. I have yet to hear about anyone making a killing by selling used Beanies. But there are a lot of people out there trying to sell them.

I have to admit to a certain amount of craziness, here. The day I saw my stepdaughter Megan cutting off all the tags on her Beanie Babies, I  nearly lost it. “What are you doing?” I yelled. “Tabasco is retired! And Garcia lists for $200 – provided his tag is intact.

Megan looked at me as though I had lost my mind. Then she said, very calmly, “The tags get in the way when you’re playing with them.”

Which was like telling me, “The Emperor is wearing no clothes.”

And so I came back to earth, and the simple economics of the whole thing hit me like a thrown copy of Anderson and Kumpf.

Exactly. I’m sorry. It will never happen again. Go ahead. Play nice. And come summer, we’ll bundle them all up for our garage sale. 25 cents a piece sounds fair, don’t you think?~

 ©Mark Andel 2001


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 Homework Can Be A Home Wreck



"We do brain surgery here. You come in here

with a skull full of mush, and you leave

thinking like a lawyer.”

- Professor Kingsfield, “The Paper Chase”



 IT’S AROUND 8:00 p.m. I’m just getting back from a long train ride from the city, and I hear the low murmur of my stepdaughter Megan and my wife at the kitchen table. I sense that it won’t be a low murmur much longer if a particular mathematical equation is not grasped with more alacrity by Megan. There’s a tightening in my chest as I enter and find the textbooks sprawled out where in years gone by (say the 1950s) there might have been a pot roast with all the trimmings. The stress factor is tightening its grip around my chest, as I notice that there’s a whole blank page of problems to be solved.

I make a stab at conviviality as I grab a package of summer sausage from the refrigerator. “Just about finished up with the homework?” I ask.

The response comes thundering back in stereo simulcast: “NO!”

 I can see it in my wife’s eyes. She wants me to take over the second shift, but that’s a math book in front of them, and she knows that there’s no way I could handle sixth-grade math. I explained it to her once, using a line from a Clint Eastwood move: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” So she’s stuck for who knows how long with an exhausted 11-year-old, explaining concepts, working through problems, and generally conducting a two-hour tutorial on the day’s subject matter.

 Welcome to the new school year.

 It occurs to me that the heaping on of homework is a merely a natural extension of the workaholic mentality we all seem to embrace. On the train earlier, with the sun sinking low over Lawrence Avenue, people were catching up with their e-mails on their notebook computers, talking business on cell phones in a faux-animated way that I couldn’t even muster at 9:00 a.m., and poring over hard copies of reports and memos with colorful graphs and charts showing declines and increases in teals and cobalt blue, of all things.

What the world (read: employer) has learned to expect of us, we now expect from our kids, and the result is a bunch of glum people at the kitchen table on too many early Autumn nights, and too many summer sausage sandwiches for dinner.

Now when I was a boy (a phrase that now elicits a Pavlovian reaction from my girls Jil and Megan of eyes rolling toward heaven and bored-beyond-belief expressions) I played two-square with pals on a chalk-drawn court, or I’d go and sit up on the roof of a shed near the pigpen with my little brother and throw pears at the assembled pigs below us, who would snort and grunt expectantly up at us. Invariably, we’d throw a few to the pigs on the fringe, the smaller, less-aggressive ones. They were the ones we liked best. I still like them the best. It was pleasant sitting up there in that leafy realm, the branches bending with ripe fruit. We called the place “Peary Como.”

Were we worried about homework? Not in the slightest. We had already finished up our ciphering with a piece of fireplace charcoal on a flat shovel (okay – I’m going too far now) but still, times were simpler. There were three channels on television instead of fifty-plus, and on Sunday nights when “Bonanza” came on, our parents and all five kids in my family would sit in front of the television with wet hair fresh from our baths.

There was no competition for our collective time from the likes of a Nintendo 64 game of “Doom” up or an arm-wrestling championship on cable. Lorne Greene and Michael Landon and Dan Blocker would be piped into the living room at that hour, and all was well. No homework, no headaches, no hassles.

The amount of homework doled out these days must be commensurate with parental expectations. Maybe it’s the same competitive spirit that forced the fattest pigs to the front lines beside the shed where the pear largesse tumbled down to them. When I read news accounts of parents battling to place their pre-schoolers in exclusive “prep” schools at exorbitant cost, I get a little sad, because once that ball starts rolling, it’s tough getting it to stop. Take the time to smell the roses? What for, when you can e-mail your rose order in and punch in your credit card number with your delivery instructions.

If life has really been made more efficient with our computers and modems and cell phones and DVD players, why pile on all the extra work for kids who are in the full flower of their youth and should be enjoying themselves while they can – running, laughing, and playing their way to rosy-cheeked exhaustion on these lovely Autumn nights?

The hardest lesson that kids must learn at school is that they are expected to become slaves to the technology that purports to be their salvation. And if their home life suffers because of too many hours spent figuring out math problems or hastily putting together collages from magazine clippings, well, that’s the price that must be paid. “It’s not fun working all the time is it, kid?” We seem to be saying to them. “Get used to it!”

A few weeks ago, Com-Ed’s infrastructure happened to crumble in the West Loop where I work. Without computers, nobody could do anything. People were given the afternoon off. They left their offices, and you could see them giddily walking down the street. Like they had all the time in the world to do whatever they pleased. Like they were playing hookey.

Like they were kids.~

  ©Mark Andel 2001


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Not Amused by Amusement Parks


"You spend the night in the cage sometime.

See what it does to you."

                        - Gary Busey in "Carny"


            Summer has not even arrived yet and the amusement park death toll is already mounting.

            In one case, an employee of Great America was inexplicably walking beside the down-swoop of a roller coaster and was kicked to death by a fourteen-year-old girl. In another incident, a mentally challenged individual squirmed out of his lap belt on a ride and fell to his death.

            Let's face it. Amusement parks are no fun. Great America is not so great.

            Next time you're at one of these places, take a look at the people you see around you. There is an irate mother jerking her five-year-old son's arms out of his shoulder sockets. Another mother is repeating the name of her oblivious daughter ad nauseum, while a camcorder documents the grim proceedings. And a young couple is arguing about which theme restaurant to go to where they will spend eight dollars for a cheeseburger. Lines of sweaty people gather in tubular steel corrals, waiting forty minutes for a ride that will last roughly forty seconds. Amid the pushing and whining and frantic jockeying for position and the clawing desperation to have fun because the ticket price is further into the stratosphere than the biggest coaster, you bear witness to all manner of negative human behavior. Amusement parks bring out the worst in people.

            They got too big. And they got dangerous. The parks and the people.

            A neighborhood carnival is more amusing. You look at the shaggy, tattooed men with arms that are shiny and blue from the machine grease, and you realize that they are the ones who put up this contraption that soars and swoops in the air, all herky-jerky kinetics, while the whoosh of the hydraulic system comes out from behind the seats like a panicked sigh. You have to admire the sheer audacity of funnel cakes, those winding ropes of sweet dough, deep fried to a crisp. And the games of chance along "sucker's alley!" The balloons with darts, the floating plastic ducks, the leaden milk bottles awaiting harmless taps of spongy softballs, and the cheap glass fish bowls with hapless goldfish dodging ping pong balls. There is more juice – more of a carnival atmosphere – at a parking lot setup than any big amusement park could ever hope to achieve.

            Every time you hear about a tragedy at an amusement park, your mind leaps first to the victims. Were they taking foolish risks? Were they carried away by the exuberance of living on the edge, and then falling right off it? Or was the machinery faulty and overstressed? Were all the screws tightened?

            And then the lawsuits promptly follow, the type of lawsuits that have forced McDonald's to spell out the word "H-O-T" on their cups of coffee. People look for the big pay-out these days, especially if bad things happen on-site at a corporation with deep pockets. A place like Great America can always raise the ticket prices to pay for the jump in the insurance premiums, the thinking goes.

            The idea of amusement parks is better than the actual experience. If you keep that in mind, it might just be possible to have some fun at them.

            Just keep the lap belts on, no matter how long you had to wait for your turn.

            The ride is over before you know it.


©Mark Andel 2002


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The Baked Bean Rain

and other Ghost Stories


“I could have missed the pain,

But I’d have had to miss the Dance.”

- Garth Brooks


 There is nothing quite like late fall to make you long for a decent ghost story.

Entire web sites are devoted to tracking down spectral visitors, and Chicago abounds with tales of doomed souls, lurking around to tend to unfinished business or, in the case of perhaps the most famous Chicago ghost Resurrection Mary, to have another dance or two.

I had it in my mind in the early Eighties to leave the party I was attending and cruise back and forth past Resurrection Cemetery at 7600 Archer Avenue on a Halloween night just on the outside chance of seeing a hitchhiking woman dressed in a white gown. But I was talked out of it by my friend John, who happened to be dressed as a swashbuckling pirate, complete with eye-patch.

“Let’s go,” I said. “I’m ready for the Last Waltz.”

“It’s not a good idea,” John told me.

“Why not? We’ll tell her to save the last dance for me!”

“Well,” John said. “For one thing, you’re dressed as a pig, and we know that Resurrection Mary is good-looking and wouldn’t be caught dead with a guy in a pig mask with beer on his breath.”

It was true. I had stuffed some enormous bib overalls with sofa cushions and was wearing a whole-head grotesque latex pig mask that looked like something that might be hanging near the meat counter of an ethnic grocery store.

“Well, maybe you could talk her into it then,” I said, my voice muffled under the mask, taking another sip of beer out of a straw. “Maybe she digs pirates.”

It never happened. We stayed at the Halloween party, delighting when someone dressed as Resurrection Mary showed up.

Or maybe it WAS she.

Come to think of it, she did leave by herself around midnight, if I recall.

And the hair on the neck rises to contemplate such a thing.

We like ghost stories. We enjoy, in some strange and bizarre way, how they make us feel: abuzz with adrenaline, our skin crawling with nervous energy. That line from “The Sixth Sense” resonates about those hairs on the back of your neck being sprits trying to communicate with you: “That’s them,” As Haley Joel Osment says.

 According to expert ghost trackers, Bachelor’s Grove cemetery just west of Cicero Avenue is among the most haunted in the world. It’s a neglected, ramshackle mess of a place, with blowing leaves and a fence laced with overgrown weeds. The stones are desecrated and the place is, for the most part, abandoned. By humans, anyway. Legend has it the ghosts are still pretty prevalent there.

Which brings me to a spooky night while camping with my family at BigfootBeach near Lake Geneva. I was telling my famous (at least to these three females) tale of the Blue-Tongued Devil to the girls while smoking a pipe. There’s nothing like a face illuminated by the glowing embers of a big pipe while telling ghost stories. Anyway, the pipe started to play on my appetite a little, and I got it in my head that a nice plate of warm beans would make for a yeoman’s breakfast.

I sneaked a large can of baked beans into the embers of the campfire. At the ghostly hour of three a.m., an explosion rocked our campsite. I edged outside, feeling what must surely have been blood all over our tent. A whiff of barbecue sauce assaulted my nostrils as the park ranger showed up.

He scraped a scoop of baked beans off the tent flap as though he were dipping a nacho into some dip, and shook his head. “You might want to vent the can next time,” he said.

“Was it the Blue-Tongued Devil?” came a small whisper from the tent.

“In a way,” I said. “In a way. But don’t worry. I’m here to protect you.”

As long as you can stay away from the shrapnel.


©Mark Andel 2001


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The Tell-Tale Coffee Mug


 ONE OF THE more interesting bits of self-help advice given to job seekers is that they should check the surroundings of the person they will be working for during the interview. Look around for pictures of kids, bowling trophies, nautical water colors, autographed baseballs -- that sort of thing. These objects are golden keys that help unlock the personalities who put them there, and give you chance to warm somebody up.

Once I interviewed with a man who had a pistol range target in his office, with small holes in the head and heart areas. I immediately excused myself to go to the bathroom and never went back. I have to admit to a little fear of looking back to see him aiming a scoped deer rifle out his window as I scrambled for my vehicle.

But perhaps the most intimate object a person uses during the work day that makes a personal statement about who they are is their office coffee mug. And if it happens to be a corporate freebie, well, that says something about the person, too, don't you think?

One supervisor of mine who happened to be a bloated old windbag taskmaster had a mug that seemed perfectly suited to him -- a big dark blue rounded mug with a clock smack dab in its center. It fairly screamed, "Time is money!" as he put us in the mug's presence (his and the cup's) during long, drawn out bull sessions where he would cook up that very axiom and  others just like it while the second hand ticked away reverently in its glistening navy blue suit. It may have been a gift, but it really worked for him, in a real character-defining way.

For a time I worked for a catalog company that produced a bright yellow catalog every year. To mirror the catalog and to show a little tongue-in-cheek brass, I used a coffee mug that was the exact same color of the catalog. It could be read as "team player" or "smart aleck" and I enjoyed its duplicity, in much the same way that legendary dopers enjoy wearing "Just Say No" tee shirts. One day, quite inexplicably, it crashed to the floor. I took it as a sign, and immediately began working for a place that made red catalogs.

Some people have taken to using coffee mugs from the "Successories" store, which portray some idyllic setting with motivational words on them -- quotes from Steven Covey's "Seven Secrets of Heartless Business Managers" or a line from Deepak Chopra of all people. What these sad little pieces of glass are called upon to do is perform like impressive little marionettes for the higher-ups. The people who possess these types of mug are scarily image conscious, probably spinning their own p.r. to disguise the fact that their job is beyond them. Or if they truly gather strength from the sentiments expressed on their coffee mugs, then they are bona fide corporate "moonies" and therefore even more frightening.

Some people go to the opposite end of the corporate spectrum and use mugs with silkscreen of famous paintings on them. They sip out of the firmament of Van Gogh's "Starry Night" or up-end their brew from a Matisse still life fruit bowl. These are the ones who appreciate the occasional "out-of-office" experience in which they see themselves hovering above their gray cubicle and floating down to a Carravagio exhibit on the next block. Displaced liberal arts majors, the lot of them.

For a time, to avoid the censuring of outside observers, I used a plain white mug, the kind you might find in a not-so-good diner. Then someone came up to me and said, "What's that supposed to mean? Is that some kind of Kerouac thing? You trying to be cool?" What archery! I immediately began using another mug.

I alternate now between a leaf mug my stepdaughter got for me and one that depicts a bit of artwork that my daughter made for me as a project. It says, "#1 Dad" on it, and "I love you," and there's a drawing of me, looking slim and straight-shouldered, smiling hugely, with a veritable haystack of bright yellow hair.

I look at it, and I feel good. And I drink from it nearly every day.~

  ©Mark Andel 2001


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We Can Build A Snowman: Or Not


"Pack you a grip, to take you a trip to see little Nassau.

Take you a cruise, to drink you some booze in little Nassau."

- Blind Blake Higgs


AFTER DIGGING AN ICE TUNNEL from my front door to my car and going out to warm up with a skirt steak and eggs and six cups of coffee at a local Greek restaurant, I asked my stepdaughter Megan if she wanted to help me build a snowman. She's twelve. It was good packing snow, I noticed, the kind of stuff that would stick together.

She never looked up from her Nintendo Play Station, where I noticed she was machine-gunning an onslaught of zombies and they fell on top of each other until they were stacked like cordwood. Scarlet pools were slowly forming under their bodies. We've made so much progress since "Pong."

"Yeah, right," she muttered, her murderous trigger finger busy on the controls.

Oh boy. Pre-teens. They're a tough audience.

"Me neither," I said. In this weather it's a lot more fun to sit around and shoot zombies. Since they're zombies, I wondered if they stayed dead once you plugged them, but asking Megan would have put me at risk for one of those withering look that suggests I know nothing about zombie behavior, Play Station style. Maybe they came back stronger, and were then more difficult to dispose of.

Anyway, I let the snowman thing go.

For anyone who was wondering if we'd see a full-bore Winter in Chicago this year, welcome to it. And you can have it. When Melville's Ishmael felt "a drizzly November in his soul," he took it upon himself to take to the sea. When I feel a biting February in my soul, I take it upon myself to get to a travel agent and pick up a few of those Caribbean catalogs. Inside are impossibly colorful pictures of exotic vistas and burnished people radiating warmth and fun. The lure of endless Summer sinks deep, and I'm ready to be reeled in. Just looking at all those white sand beaches and coral reefs and tropical fish and fabulous hotels puts me in a Buffet zone, as in Jimmy. Last week I wore a Hawaiian shirt to work. I got a lot of pitiful looks, but some smiles too from the train commuters, but they were mainly the type of smile that said, "Isn't it wonderful to see a man with his mental capacity still making an effort to support himself." I don't know how Steve Dahl gets away with it, but I certainly understand why he does it.

I'm ready to go. Each year around this time I tell myself and anyone else who will listen, "What are we thinking about? Why do we live here in this frozen wasteland?  What's wrong with us? Do you know that today's temperature in Paradise Island is 78 degrees?"

Getting the travel agents to give me the sumptuous free catalogs is always a bit of a con game. Having a spouse along who is in on the game is always preferred. It' s always good to have a place in mind when you walk in and a date when you're planning to go. The departure date should never be more than a month or so. Travel agents are always more helpful and more willing to part with their glossy literature when they sense a quick sale.

Dredging up some actual Caribbean experience is also helpful, but be careful about that. I once mentioned a nice place on Cable Beach and was told that it had closed eighteen years ago. Exactly what kind of jet-setter was I anyway?

A few years back, my wife and I went on a trip to Paradise Island and stayed at a place called the Fun Club. I don't think that's around anymore either. We went with our friends John and Janice. John was an old college roommate of mine, and he and his wife are both easy-going people, which makes them perfect travel companions. We snorkeled and drank Bahama Mamas and Sea Breezes and dined on conch chowder and fresh grouper and played golf and lounged around on the beach and even gambled a little at Atlantis. It was a great time.

The memory of it warms me now as I sling another shovel full of gray ice over my shoulder. It's a fantasy world that's even more fun than killing zombies. ~

©Mark Andel 2001 


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